Basic Facts

  • Restless legs syndrome (RLS), a condition characterized by an uncomfortable sensation and urge to move the legs, is worse at night and evenings.
  • The most distinctive aspect of RLS is that lying down and trying to relax activates the symptoms. 
  • Some people with RLS experience severe nightly sleep disruption that can significantly impair their quality of life.
  • As many as 10 percent of the U.S. population may be affected by this condition.

The compelling desire to move is what gives restless legs syndrome its name. The condition can start at any age, even during childhood, and generally worsens as the years pass. As the disease progresses, symptoms may occur earlier in the day, intensify at night and extend beyond the legs to be felt in the arms and other parts of the body.

RLS can be a contributing factor leading to insomnia.

Many people with RLS also experience a condition known as periodic limb movement, which manifests as involuntary muscle twitches, or jerking movements or an upward flexing of the feet during sleep. These movements typically occur every 20 to 40 seconds and can cluster in episodes lasting from a few minutes to several hours.

RLS has a wide spectrum of disease severity. Mild RLS may be experienced as a minor annoyance. However, severe cases can have a major impact on quality of life because many people have difficulty sleeping. Sleep deprivation and daytime fatigue are the most common reasons for RLS patients to seek treatment.

Common symptoms of RLS include:

  • Sensations start during rest, usually after a period of lying down or sitting, such as during car rides or plane flights.
  • Relief comes from movement such as stretching, pacing, or walking.
  • Symptoms are worse in the evening.
  • Sensations are described as throbbing, pulling, aching, itching, and creeping.
  • Symptoms can fluctuate in severity and can disappear for periods of time, then recur.

In majority of the cases, the cause of RLS unknown. However, it may have a genetic component because it is often found in families where the conditions starts before age 50.

RLS also appears to be related to conditions such as anemia, diabetes, pregnancy or chronic kidney disease. Certain medications, such as antidepressants, may aggravate symptoms.

RLS is more common with increasing age and is more likely to affect women than men.  

RLS can be difficult to diagnose if the symptoms are intermittent or mild.

During a physical exam, physicians will ask about an individual’s description of symptoms and specifics such as when they occur (evening), how they are triggered (relaxation), and how they are relieved (movement).

A sleep study, performed at a Virginia Heart Sleep Center, can be an essential diagnostic tool. A polysomnogram is a nighttime study that monitors sleep stages and cycles to identify when sleep patterns may be disrupted. The study records a variety of bodily functions during sleep such as the electrical activity of the brain, blood oxygen levels, heart rate, and breathing, as well as eye and leg movements.

Once correctly diagnosed, RLS can often be treated successfully.

Several medications, most of which were developed to treat other diseases, can reduce the symptoms of RLS. One example is dopaminergic agents, which affect the level of the chemical messenger dopamine in the brain and are used to treat neurological conditions such as Parkinson's disease.  

Besides medications, some patients have found relief with Relaxis Pad, a medical device that uses vibration to compete with and diminish the unpleasant sensations of RLS, and cognitive behavioral therapy, which focuses on developing habits that promote a healthy pattern of sleep.  

Lifestyle changes may also help. Patients should avoid sitting in one position for too long and should move often throughout the day. Certain foods and drinks can trigger RLS or make symptoms worse; patients may be asked to abstain from caffeine, tobacco, and alcohol for a few weeks to see if symptoms improve.